Postcard from Lisbon: "Do we care? Hell yes."

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Lisbon was the venue for the latest European Young Leaders (EYL40) seminar held on 8-10 September under the sunshine of the late Portuguese summer. As always, the programme was a mix of insightful debate and meetings with local experts, citizens and political leaders, as well as the strengthening of old – and forging of new – friendships, as the group continued the decade-long EYL40 tradition of working hard and playing hard.

Here’s a taster.

#EYL40Lisbon - Who cares, do you care, do we care?

THE BIG ISSUE

Climate change and the future of our embattled planet was the #1 topic, dominating several sessions over the three-day event. The message was stark, but not without hope: fast action can still avert the worst, but time is running out and radical decisions are needed now.

“We are destroying the planet and the ocean. There is no way around this fact. The science is there. The situation is completely out of control,” warned Emmanuel Gonçalves, Chief Scientist of Portugal’s Oceano Azul (Blue Ocean) Foundation. “We have a choice; this is the good news. We can choose to continue our ways or we can choose to change.”

One way ahead would be a mobilisation of public, private and civil society to fight climate change with the urgency displayed in the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Everyone needs to chip in. We all need to build a coalition of the willing to strive for a solution,” said Wouter Vermeulen, Senior Director of Sustainability at Coca-Cola Europe. A Transatlantic Climate Dialogue roundtable concluded that regular contact between policymakers, regulators, business and technology players on both sides of the pond would be a good way to facilitate swifter action.

HELP FROM ABOVE

Vast banks of satellite-borne solar panels orbiting the Earth and beaming free power down to the surface could be part of the answer. “It sounds like science fiction, but these technologies have been demonstrated since the 1970s,” explained Angeliki Kapoglou, Strategist and Researcher at the European Space Agency (ESA). “With a relatively small investment, we can unlock a huge new baseline power, with unlimited potential.” Her words were given added emphasis by the Lisbon sun blazing down through the glass roof of the ‘winter garden’ of the São Luiz Theatre, the main venue, and a warning that humanity will need annual emissions cuts on the scale of those triggered by the pandemic slowdown in order to meet current climate change targets.

QUO VADIS EUROPA?

The seminar’s other core theme was the meaning of Europe, and how to regenerate trust and support for the European project and values when democracy is facing internal and external threats. Lisbon Mayor Carlos Moedas issued a rigorous appeal for the young leaders to work to defend and reinvigorate Europe. “Europe is so important. Every other alternative is the wrong way to go,” he said over a vegetarian dinner at City Hall. “This is the only alternative we have.”

His words were given weight at the next day’s meeting with Lisbon citizens, most of them students who joined the EYL40s to discuss what Europe means to them. In a poll, they were clear in stating that they trust Europe more than their local or national governments to look after their interests. “We cannot forget the benefit the European Union is giving us daily,” said student Eduarda.

IT’S NOT ME, IT’S EU

Inspired by a visit to Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships on the sidelines of their last meeting, the leaders were asked to bring a single object that symbolises their emotional connection with Europe. They included dog passports that enable canine companions imported from Malaysia to travel freely around the EU and Ottoman-era gold coins worn for good luck in Bulgaria and representing Europe’s Islamic heritage, but the most pungent offering was a tin of tuna presented by EYL40 bestselling children’s book author Francesca Cavallo, recalling the taste and smell of her one-way flight back to Europe from Los Angeles at the start of the pandemic. “It was the worst flight experience ever, but it gave me a lot of time to think if I wanted to start the next chapter of my life in Europe,” she said. “I never turned back. This smell is forever associated to my previous US life.”

AIRB&B VERSUS LISBON

Before the seminar formally kicked off, journalist, author and EYL40 Nassira El Moaddem took the early arrivals on an ‘on the ground’ walking reportage around some of Lisbon’s historic neighbourhoods to gather first-hand evidence of the impact of mass tourism on the city’s housing crisis. They found whole districts where citizens have been forced out by the spread of short-term vacation rentals, notably in the medieval Alfama area, where the resident population has fallen from 20,000 to barely 1,000. “This is not just happening in Lisbon. This is a universal problem,” she noted. Further outreach with Lisbon citizens came with a dinner at the city’s Hindu Temple.

CULTURAL INTERLUDES

Among the Lisbon residents the group met on their morning walk was renowned Fado singer Raquel Tavares. A video of her singing her way through neighbourhood’s narrow lanes was one of a number of cultural highlights. Shakespeare, Chopin and Mad Max all made an appearance over the three days. Edite Estrela, Vice-president of the Portuguese National Assembly, quoted the English bard in her welcome address to the group as a warning on climate change. “Richard III wanted to change his kingdom for a horse. Are we ready to change our material goods for drinking water and clean air?” she asked.

The post-Apocalypse landscape of Mad Max was evoked by CNN Portugal journalist Catarina Canelas in her appeal for protection for the oceans and the planet: “We don’t want Mad Max. Let’s keep it in fiction.” As for Chopin, the eminently European composer music was brought to life by concert pianist and EYL40 Alexandra Dariescu, with a magical performance on the theatre’s grand piano. Her other musical choices struck a chord on the need for diversity in classical music, showcasing the work of women composers.

CONSTRUCTIVE POLITICS

Two of the group’s former MPs KirstensBrosbøl and van den Hul – took forward the Constructive Politics Working Group agenda, preparing the project to provide support for the new intake of MEPs after the European Parliament elections in 2024. The goal is to promote democratic dialogue and responsive political processes to rebuild citizens’ trust in politicians and institutions. Ways to rebuild that trust were also discussed in the final session featuring Tiago Antunes, Secretary of State for European Affairs of the Portuguese Government, and Yves Dejaeghere, Executive Director of the Federation for Innovation in Democracy (FIDE), on a video link from Brussels. “We do need to find instruments to reach directly to the people and to get a feeling of their concerns and wishes and how they see the future,” Antunes stated.

THE MAPLE LEAF CONNECTION

MP and UNITE Founder Ricardo Baptista Leite won applause for his role in supporting the organisation of the seminar but lost his position as the only Canadian-born Portuguese doctor in the group with the arrival of 2022 EYL40 Gustavo Carona. Both led roundtable discussions on humanitarian medical missions and the lessons learned from the pandemic.

Other roundtables tackled issues ranging from Russia’s war on Ukraine, to creating political start-ups to promote positive change; from youth empowerment and the case for better incentives for young Europeans to pursue professional sports.

Baptista Leite also had the final word on a question posed by the seminar’s title: “Do we care? Hell yes.”

Check out the full programme of the ‘Who cares, do you care, do we care? seminar and stay tuned for the release of the event report, set to be published in mid-October.

The European Young Leaders (EYL40) programme represents an alternative leadership for an inspiring Europe. The programme is supported by the John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation, Fondazione Cariplo, the United States European Command (EUCOM), The Coca-Cola Company and Google, and co-funded by the European Union. The Lisbon seminar was also kindly supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) and Lisbon Camara Municipal.

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